Survey of Avery Dulles’s Models of Revelation

As I transition in my study of theological prolegomena from religion to revelation, I wanted to provide a brief overview of a few chapters from Roman Catholic Cardinal Avery Dulles’s very useful Models of Revelation. In this book, Dulles (1918-2008) outlined various approaches to defining the essence of revelation in Christian theology. I thought it would be helpful and interesting to summarize the five models he outlined in his book.

Model one: Revelation as Doctrine. God reveals himself in nature, but not sufficiently for salvation. Supernatural/special revelation is given for saving knowledge of God. This revelation was originally given through theophany and prophecy (and ultimately in Christ). As salvation-history progressed, it increasingly took the form of doctrine and was written down by holy men. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Scripture is the objective revelation of God. The nature of this revelation in Scripture is propositional and rational (being communicated from the divine intellect to the human intellect by speech). The response to this propositional truth is assent.

Finds historical precedence in: old rabbinic theories of inspiration, some early Church Fathers, Medieval syllogistic approaches to theology, humanist text criticism, conservative battles with liberalism.

Protestant Advocates: Gordon Clark, J. I. Packer, John Warwick Montgomery, Carl Henry, and is articulated in the 1978 Chicago Statement on inerrancy.

Roman Catholics Advocates: Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Christian Pesch, Hermann Dieckmann, and various conciliar documents arising from Vatican I (Also, Roman Catholic proponents of this view argue that this propositional revelation is found in Tradition).

Merits: faithful to Christian dogmatic history, fits with biblical language of Scripture as “God’s word,” encourages loyalty to confession and tradition, and it preserves the uniqueness and superiority of Christian revelation.

Criticisms: too reductionistic—ignores how genre informs meaning of Bible verses, and overstates the role of propositions in the conveyance of truth (cf. Speech-Act theory), inadequate to our experience of truth and reality.

Model two: Revelation as History. The Bible is not primarily the word of God, but the (relatively faithful) record of God’s objective, revelatory deeds in history. The Bible is a confessional recital by the people of God as they reflect upon these great deeds. These events disclose God’s plan for the redemption of the world (thus, the interpretation is bound up with the event). The response to this ‘deed’ form of revelation is trust in God who acts in history for his people’s salvation.

Advocates: William Temple, G. Ernest Wright, Oscar Cullmann, Wolfhart Pannenburg.

Merits: Regards God’s actions in history as concrete, gives greater attention to neglected Biblical books and genres (historical, prophetical, and apocalyptic), more flexible than the propositional model of revelation.

Criticisms: too reductionistic—is revelation only in deed and not in word?, this model finds little support in Church history prior to the rise of ‘historical consciousness,’ ecumenically inadequate, the idea of an ‘act of God’ is not defined well.

Model three: Revelation as Inner Experience. God is transcendent and immanent, absolute and immanent. Through a transforming religious experience it is possible to discern the divine presence (this is an experience of divine grace). Rejects natural/ supernatural revelation dichotomy; wherever there is real religion, there is real revelation (the Christian theologian is no more privileged in this regard than the Brahman). Revelation comes individually, but broadens into a cultural-religious context. The criterion of true revelation is whether it produces a fruitful religious life.

Revelation is necessarily interior because God is Spirit. Revelation is an immediate, consciousness of God, and gives a mystical knowledge that illuminates everything else. Revelation is God directly communicating himself to the soul that is open to him. Doctrine, confessions, traditions are human attempts to describe an ineffable revelatory experience. They are at best symbolic descriptions, but when treated like revelation they become idolatrous. Revelation and salvation are identical.

Protestant Advocates: Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, Wilhelm Hermann, Auguste Sabatier, C. H. Dodd, H. Wheeler Robinson.

Roman Catholic Advocates: George Tyrell, Baron Friedrich von Hügel, Karl Rahner.

Merits: timely (it arose as a response to rationalism’s critique of classical revelation), devotional.

Criticisms: Contradicts most of the Bible, ‘revelation is for the spiritual genius’ (those disciplined, spiritual enough to perceive the divine), too narrow a view of experience, and a presumptuous view of ‘religious experiences.’

Model four: Revelation as Dialectical Encounter. Very paradoxical. Revelation is a salvific encounter with the living God. Revelation is a mystery because it is a revelation of a God who is absolute mystery. As a result, even God’s revelation also conceals himself. God reveals himself as Judge and Justifier in Christ. Generally, rejects natural revelation. God’s revelation cannot be discerned within history, doctrine, or experience, but we are nonetheless to believe he is present (hiddenly) in these.

The Word of God is (even in the post-apostolic Church) a free decision and gift of God. The Bible, the Church, preaching, bear witness to revelation, but are not revelation; these can become the Word of God if Christ is pleased to speak through them. The Bible is not inerrant, because it was written by fallible men, but Christ can still be pleased to speak his Word through their fallible words. The truth given is not “it-truth” (i.e. propositional) but the truth of God asserting himself in Christ as judged and saved with us.

Revelation stands over and above history and man. So it cannot be authenticated or proved by man apart from faith. This also means that the historical Jesus does not constitute revelation; yet, the divine Word is present in history without being identical to it.

Advocates: Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Emil Brunner

Merits: certain affinities to the paradoxical “word of the cross” which Paul (and Luther) spoke of, a bulwark against positivist and liberal critiques of Christianity, Christ-centered and Trinitarian, helped revive interest in Protestant systematic theology, preserves idea of an encounter with God without falling into errors of experiential model.

Criticisms: Not very biblical or in line with Church tradition, it tends to be rather incoherent, built on modernist foundations.

Model five: Revelation as New Awareness. Revelation is a ‘break through’ in human society. Revelation is related to human progress and psychic growth, the convergence of many into one. It is a reflection of God in our consciousness; it does not come from without, but from within. Revelation is a new mode of human consciousness; it is the process by which God works from within history and tradition to lead to a higher consciousness. As such, revelation always correlates with human questions arising out of a cultural and historical context. Jesus Christ stands as the high point of this consciousness. God is not an object, but a horizon.

Reason is involved, not discursively, but as an attempt to think through new possibilities and new meanings; the truth which revelation gives is not propositional, but pragmatic. History (and the Bible) is useful as it testifies to previous break through experience, and gives meaningful paradigms of human self-transcendence that are still useful in the present. All of human history is under the influence of God’s grace; this gracious revelation is universal in scope and intent.

Protestant Advocates: Gregory Baum, Gabriel Moram, Paul Tillich, Ray L. Hart.

Roman Catholic Advocates: Maurice Blondel, Teilhard de Chardin, Julian Huxley, Leslie Dewart.

Merits: Not authoritiarian or reconstructive or sentimental, harmonizes with the dominant view of world history (evolutionary-progressive), encourages human action and responsibility in society.

Criticisms: Not faithful to Bible or Church history, its rejection of an ‘outsider God’ is very problematic, Hegelianism (which is in essence what this view proposes) has been soundly rejected by Christian theology, what of those who experience God enthroned above history? Since it has no message, it can give no answers.


3 comments on “Survey of Avery Dulles’s Models of Revelation

  1. […] evidence that the Reformed doctrine of revelation is not the propositional model of revelation (see here for more info). While propositions are a necessary component of revelation, they are not a […]

  2. You list Leslie Dewart as a Protestant advocate of Model five. However, Leslie Dewart was a Roman Catholic religious philosopher (source: inside cover flap of my hardcover copy of his book: “The Future of Belief” Herder and Herder.

    • therev2011 says:

      Hi Vida,

      Thank you for your comment. These are just my notes on Dulles’s book, which may mean that Dulles listed Dewart as a Protestant (or more likely, I simply misread or mistyped what he actually wrote). Thanks for the correction.


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